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What is the relationship between a therapist and client

Clients often develop a close relationship with therapists. After all, during therapy sessions they sit in a room discussing very personal subjects, but can you be friends with your therapist? While you might feel friendly toward your therapist, it is important to understand that you should not be friends or think of your therapist as your friend.

This article discusses whether therapists and clients can be friends and the characteristics of the therapeutic relationship. It also covers some of the factors that can affect the relationship between a therapist and clients.

Why Your Therapist Can’t Be Your Friend

Your therapist should not be a close friend because that would create what’s called a dual relationship, something that is unethical in therapy.

What Is Dual Relationship?

Dual relationships occur when people are in two very different types of relationships at the same time. For example, it is unethical for a therapist to treat a close friend or relative. It is also unethical for a therapist to have a sexual relationship with a client.

One of the difficulties with dual relationships is that a problem in one relationship, such as a friendship or a sexual relationship, can then cause problems in the therapy relationship. If you are mad at your therapist because they didn’t attend your party, it will be hard for you to open up in therapy.

In addition to being a dual relationship, sexual relationships with clients exploit the power inherent in the one-sided nature of the therapy relationship. Such relationships are unethical on several grounds.

Understanding the Therapist-Client Relationship

Psychotherapy is by necessity an imbalanced relationship. You, the client, open up, and the therapist generally doesn’t. This is necessary in order to focus on your problems exclusively. How can trust develop in such a one-sided relationship?

Since the therapist doesn’t reveal nearly as much, you will hopefully come to view the therapist as a safe, caring listener who is devoted to helping you figure out your problems, not her own.

Over the course of therapy, a therapist works with you to develop what is known as a therapeutic alliance. This alliance is defined as how a therapist and client interact with one another. It is a type of bond where both people agree to work toward agreed-upon goals in order to produce a positive change.

Characteristics of this therapeutic alliance include:

  • Empathy
  • Genuineness
  • Insight
  • Lack of judgment
  • Trust

Research suggests that the therapeutic alliance plays an important role in treatment outcomes. In fact, having a good relationship with your therapist can matter more than the type of treatment that is being utilized.


If you are currently in therapy, expect your therapist to be someone who is easy to talk to. Your relationship with them should be warm, trusting, and empathetic. While you can be friendly, you should not be friends.

What Makes the Therapeutic Relationship Different

Friendship, on the other hand, is inherently two-sided. In most relationships, people open up gradually as the other person also opens up. As friends, they come to know the details of each other’s lives and share experiences beyond sitting in a therapist’s office.

The therapeutic relationship does share some of the same qualities as friendship. You should be able to trust and feel comfortable with your therapist, but that doesn’t mean that these feelings are the same thing you would experience in a friendship.

Therapy can certainly be a friendly relationship, depending on the personalities involved and the therapist’s theoretical orientation.

Transference and Countertransference

Historically, certain psychoanalytically oriented therapists took pains not to reveal any aspect of themselves to their patients. They believed that this would influence the patient’s reactions in an unhelpful manner known as transference.

Most contemporary psychoanalysts and therapists, however, recognize that they are always revealing aspects of themselves. The therapist’s goal is not to hide their personality but to foster the kind of relationship that allows for the fullest discussion and exploration of all the reactions that take place between the therapist and patient.

This may involve the use of a process known as transference, which involves a client projecting their feelings onto the therapist.

What Is Transference?

Transference is a phenomenon where feelings that a person has about other people in their life, such as their parents or partner, are unconsciously applied to the current situation. This might include feelings of affection, anger, or other emotions.

Sometimes transference can be a barrier to treatment, particularly if it causes a person to withdraw. When used in a positive way, however, it allows you to develop a positive therapeutic alliance and explore negative feelings that might arise over the course of therapy.

Therapists also work to stay aware of how their own feelings and internal conflicts might be projected onto a client, a phenomenon known as counter-transference.

Can You Be Friends With a Former Therapist?

While not common, a friendship can develop when you’ve finished therapy. There are no official rules or ethical guidelines from either the American Psychological Associated or American Psychiatric Association regarding friendships with former clients.

Becoming friends with your former therapist is a gray area that presents a number of challenges. While this isn’t expressively forbidden by professional regulatory boards, there are ethical concerns that you should consider. 

This includes the idea that the transference aspects of the relationship and the power imbalance formed in therapy never fully disappear. You should also consider whether or not you might want to return to therapy again in the future. If you decide to recommence therapy and you’ve become friends with your former therapist, it may mean seeking out a different therapist for future treatment.


Being friends with a former therapist isn’t forbidden, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Such a friendship may also make it difficult if you decide you want to go back to therapy again in the future.

A Word From Verywell

Your relationship with your therapist should be marked by warmth, support, and a good rapport. If they are friendly, this may be an added bonus. But remember that therapy is not the same as a friendship. By taking advantage of the personal and professional relationship that develops in therapy, you will be better able to make the changes that you strive for in your life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it normal to feel attached to your therapist?

    Feeling attached to your therapist is sometimes the result of transference, where feelings you have are projected onto your therapist. It is also normal to have an affinity for your therapist, but it is important to recognize that such feelings of attachment are not the same thing as friendship.

  • Can you be friends with your therapist on social media?

    Ethical guidelines don’t specifically forbid being friends with clients on social media, and it may be fine to follow your therapist’s business-related social media accounts on different platforms. However, therapists becoming friends with clients on personal social media accounts is generally discouraged by the American Psychological Association.

  • How do therapists avoid treating their friends like clients?

    While some therapists find that it is easy to create boundaries between work and their social life, others may find themselves responding to friends in the same way they would their therapy clients. To avoid this, therapists may need to consciously work to avoid taking on a counselor role with their friends and family. Creating boundaries and staying neutral are strategies that can be helpful.

As a therapist, my role in a person’s life is a unique one. I meet strangers who come to me for help, support, and to take on what I believe is the most important venture anyone can, to truly know and understand themselves. The trust I am awarded each time a person tells me his or her story is something that has never ceased to humble and inspire me in my 30-plus years of clinical practice.

When I see someone start to break free from some of the limitations imposed on them by their own past or the pain of their early relationships and experiences and begin to find their way, uncover their goals, and start to reveal who they really are, it is genuinely the most rewarding part of therapy. I consider each of the people I’ve spoken to brave and am grateful to play any role in their journey toward becoming the only thing any of us can hope to be: our real selves. For those reasons and more, I care deeply about the relationship I establish with the people who come to see me in therapy.

Over the years, research has confirmed what so many therapists have known intuitively, that the therapeutic relationship itself is essential to the success a patient experiences. Some studies have even called it the most important common factor in successful outcomes. When a task force put together by APA’s Society of Clinical Psychology set out to identify empirically supported treatments, they found that the “therapy relationship makes substantial and consistent contributions to psychotherapy outcome independent of the specific type of treatment” and that “the therapy relationship accounts for why clients improve (or fail to improve) at least as much as the particular treatment method.”

Dr. John Norcross, who headed up the task force, defined the therapeutic alliance as referring to “the quality and strength of the collaborative relationship between client and therapist, typically measured as agreement on the therapeutic goals, consensus on treatment tasks, and a relationship bond.” Along with empathy and genuineness, this alliance represents an integral part of the therapeutic relationship. Research shows, time and time again, that this alliance plays an extremely important role in the change process.

In his new book, Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice: True Stories of Therapy and Transformation, my father, Dr. Robert Firestone, invites an audience into the therapy process, where they can witness how the formation of this relationship can deeply impact the evolution of an individual. One of the things I most admire about my father’s approach to therapy is his ability to see the possibility of a person without their defenses. With an almost x-ray like vision, he can almost immediately appreciate the unique essence of a person, separate from the influence of a painful past or the ongoing abuse of a cruel inner critic.

The short stories he tells in his book eloquently and colorfully illustrate exactly how the relationship between patient and therapist can help people change. In the foreword, he wrote of psychotherapy that “nowhere in life is a person listened to, felt, empathized with, and experienced with such concentrated sharing and emphasis on every aspect of personal communication.”

A good therapist has a deep interest in their client as an individual and will see and relate to them in ways that are sensitively tailored to the person’s specific needs. There is no one proven method of therapy – no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment, because no one person is like the other. In order to be available to a patient and establish a solid relationship built on trust and understanding, the therapist has to be equally attuned to the patient and their own state of being. As my father put it, “Above all the therapist must remain an authentic human being with genuine feelings.”

When you consider how many of our problems come from early issues in our relationships, it makes sense that much of our healing would occur within a relationship. An attuned therapist can offer a person not just a new way of looking at themselves but at relationships in general.

Attachment research tells us that the biggest predictor of our attachment patterns in our relationships is the one we experienced growing up. The attachment strategy we form in our earliest years can shape the reactions we have and the reactions we create in others throughout our lives.

The best way to form healthier, more secure attachments is to make sense and feel the full pain of our story – to create what Dr. Daniel Siegel often refers to as a “coherent narrative.” This process of self-understanding is one of the great gifts of the therapeutic process. The genuine curiosity a therapist has in their patient creates a safe space for the client to explore their own story and start to make sense of it.

When the therapist reacts to someone in a different manner than they’re used to or would expect, with attunement and reflection the person can form a new model for attachment. The formation of a secure attachment to the therapist has been shown to be significantly associated with greater reductions in client distress. By experiencing a secure attachment with the therapist, the person can feel safe to start to resolve some of their old traumas and evolve their model of relating. This is why the establishment of trust in the relationship is so crucial to the success of the outcome of therapy.

It is on this groundwork of trust that a person feels safest to reveal their real selves. As they peel back the layers of their defenses, they can start to recognize their unique wants and needs, what they wish to change or who they hope to become. As my father put it, “There is a need to be sensitive to clients’ real feelings, qualities, and priorities, and to distinguish them from the negative overlay on their personalities that prevents them from reaching their full potential for living.” This is the principle I aim to live by both in my practice and in myself, because I know that only by knowing ourselves can we be fully available and of service to others.